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Another fine mess

Reader fan critic teacher reader fan.

Currently reading

Ottessa Moshfegh
Knife Fight and Other Struggles
David Nickle
Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
Andrew Solomon
The Good Lord Bird
James McBride
Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie
Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More (New Edition)
Derek Bok
Dissident Gardens
Jonathan Lethem
Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s
Kim Newman
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
James Gleick
Complete Novels
Dashiell Hammett, Steven Marcus
After the Apocalypse - Maureen F. McHugh There's a subset of sci-fi labeled mundane by author (and sort of apostle) Geoff Ryman: eschewing the hyperboles of operatic interstellar shenanigans, far-future (and -flung) technowizardry, and the widescreen scope of global Event, these fictions think local, concentrating on fine-grained character studies in the light of some imaginable, even foreseeable future. How do we live, when X? What is the psychology of citizens and the ethos of community under conditions Y?

McHugh's collection may fail the strict DNA testing for mundane--one story follows a sudden epidemic of people flying, and most (see title) occur after some more serious epidemic, collapse, apocalypses with zombies, tainted chicken nuggets, or some unnamed econo-energy breakdown that unravels the social fabric we now know. But mostly the author ignores or slides right by the cause or narration of the Big Breakdown, instead zeroing in on this woman, that man, these individuals just getting by. And the stories are smart, heartbreaking, riveting. The opener ("The Naturalist") seems at first like my standout: a(nother) zombieverse, but here in a JohnCarpenteresque move the undead are corralled in Cleveland, and the zone is used as a penal colony. We follow one such prisoner as he observes the walkers, trying to figure out how they behave. He is not--they never are--a particularly good man, and the story unsettles, and rings new tones from, the standard zombie tropes. But it's more of a showboat plot than McHugh's norm, even though its central strengths are found in every tale here: the short fiction writer's precision with detail, a wit even in the telling of terrible things, an ability to reveal depths and layers of a character's psychology through action (rather than an expository inner monologue). As I've sat on my reactions for a week or so, I've circled back around a good number of these tales: a single woman trying to do good deeds with passing homeless men, in a southwest after economic collapse; a programmer struggles to make sense of strange behavior from a sophisticated computer network; a divorced woman makes some extra money in drug trials; a woman wanders another blasted American landscape with her teenaged daughter, and makes a hard choice.

The more I thought about them, my rankings kept shifting, and my memories of the book deepening, strengthening. It's easily one of the best I read this year.